NEW YORK — Novak Djokovic had his chances — namely, three break points toward the end of the third set, any of which would have given him control of what was shaping up as a close-as-can-be U.S. Open final.
When he lost them all, any hope of lifting the trophy in New York slipped away as fast as a Rafael Nadal forehand.
Djokovic fell to Nadal 6-2, 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 on Monday and, instead of winning his seventh major title, finished as runner-up for the sixth time.
"I didn’t do anything, I felt, wrong in those few points," Djokovic said. "He didn’t make a mistake. He served well. He came to net. All the credit to him. I had my momentum from midway second set to end of the third. I was supposed to use and realize the opportunities that were presented to me, and I didn’t do it."
After a slow start, Djokovic took control of the match in the second set, breaking Nadal not once, but twice, and showing that, yes, there was someone out there who could handle the serve of a man who had lost it only one time in 82 games coming into the final.
That, by itself, made Djokovic a good bet to win the title once the match was knotted at one set apiece. And when he went ahead 40-0 on Nadal’s serve at 4-all in the third — even sending Nadal tumbling to the ground on the second point when the Spaniard lost his footing — it looked like this might be Djokovic’s big chance.
The points played out like this:
–Nadal with an inside-out forehand winner hit while falling backward. Djokovic applauded the shot as he watched it whip by.
–Djokovic netting a forehand — one of 53 unforced errors he made on the night — to close a 22-shot rally.
–Nadal with a 125-mph ace down the middle, his first and only ace of the match.
"It’s not a strategy to play break points," Nadal said. "It’s a feeling of that moment. It’s a little bit of intuition of the situation, and (the goal) is play with right determination and choose the right option."
Djokovic did save one game point after losing the break opportunities, but he couldn’t pull out the game.
A 61-minute set ended six points later after a Nadal forehand made Djokovic lunge and nearly do the splits and his reply went long.
Nadal bent down and pumped his fist four times. Djokovic glanced over to his players’ box and walked, head down, to the sideline.
The fourth set was academic after Nadal broke Djokovic in the second game.
"It’s obvious that in the important moments, he played better tennis, and that’s why he deserved to win," Djokovic said.
Djokovic will still leave New York ranked first — a hollow consolation that won’t last that long if Nadal keeps up his dominance on hard courts. He improved to 22-0 on the season, while Djokovic has more wins (31) but picked up his fifth and most painful loss on the surface in front of 23,000 in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"I wish I’d won at least one title more, considering the fact I played two finals," Djokovic said, mentioning the two losses.
He opened the Grand Slam season with the title in Australia, while Nadal was still on the sideline with a stomach virus and also nursing his injured left knee back to 100 per cent.
Djokovic lost a 9-7 fifth set to Nadal in the French Open semifinal, then fell in three sets to Andy Murray at Wimbledon.
The four-set loss to Nadal was reminiscent of the first time they met in the U.S. Open final, back in 2010, when it was also Nadal in four. It sparked Djokovic on to one of the best seasons ever. He went 70-6 in 2011 and won three of the four Grand Slams, capping it with a victory over Nadal at Flushing Meadows.
Could this latest loss produce a repeat?
"I have to," Djokovic said. "It’s part of my life."